R. Christopher Vest and the Art of Painted Photo Montages

Self-taught artist R. Christopher Vest has nearly 30 years of experience creating art across all spectrums. His creativity, paired with his wanderlust, led him to create a type of art called “painted photo montage.” Here he gives us a peek into his artistic process and shows how one of his most popular pieces was created.


 

“So what IS this, actually?” a man asked me at the art fair that accompanied a great birding festival.”Is this a photograph or a painting?” He stretched out the word painting, creating an ironic emphasis on “pain.”

 

His nose was four inches from a framed print of mine. His expression seemed to be a mix of suspicion and intense concentration, as if he was on the cusp of exposing the sleight of hand that had produced a card trick– or outright fraud.

 

R. Christopher Vest

 

Literally just outside the exhibition tent, thousands of sandhill cranes were congregating on this celebrated New Mexico National Wildlife Refuge wintering ground. It was my first ever showing at a birding art festival, but it wasn’t the first time that I’d fielded an interrogation of this kind. I explained that it is both: digital painting and photography, a “painted photo montage.”

 

R. Christopher Vest

 

I have noticed in queries of this kind a subtle sense that my straddling these two disciplines drops me into a no-mans land where my work is viewed skeptically by devotees of both “real” painters and photographers–particularly in the realm of depicting wildlife. I looked enviously at the photo gear he was sporting: one of those Gee-Golly rigs that cost as much as an acre of downtown Manhattan real estate and a lens that looked like a small howitzer. With bad light, high winds and a hangover he could still nail a gnatcatcher’s supercilium in flight (and sharp focus) at a thousand paces with that techno-marvel.

 

R. Christopher Vest

 

So lets face it: in this digital age, one where basic Adobe Photoshop skills are common with everyone from your Grandma Cratchet to New Guinea tribesmen, the merging of arts was bound to happen. Photo sites these days are larded with images simulating antiquity with a textural layers and hokey fake-painterly filters. But wait: all of this happened long ago, before Pixar, before Walt Disney’s multi-plane camera techniques and even before the hand-coloring of old post cards.

 

Consider Alfred Stieglitz and his group the “Photo-Secessionists” who were doing this before 1900. I particularly identify with the etched surfaces and beautiful tonality of Heinrich Kühn, Edward J. Steichen, and Gertrude Kasebier. In a nutshell, these pioneers were trying to bridge photography and so-called fine art to earn for photography (which was often dismissed as merely a mechanical and documentary medium) the kind of artistic legitimacy that traditional painting had.

 

R. Christopher Vest

 

They therefore manipulated their black and white images in the dark room to render them more “pictorial”. These techniques foreshadowed much of what is done with today’s computer capabilities, for example: dodging and burning, image “sandwiching”, and even etching upon the original negatives. That indeed is what I do, though I do it in vivid color—striving similarly to lend artistic endorsement to computer generated art.

 

I have a long history of taking pretty mediocre bird photos. With crummy lens and lack of patience, I’ve gathered bird images from Israel to Alaska that are breathtakingly dull and out-of-focus. But I also have those nearly ubiquitous computer Photoshop skills, so my choice was either to cut my throat in photo envy and self-loathing, or breath new life into the bad photos with considerable “painting”, merging, and touch-up. And so voila: part painting, part photography. One last emerald-with-envy glance at that casual photographer who has a camera worth more than my car– and I go to work.

 

R. Christopher Vest


 

I don’t pretend to being either innovator or the superlative practioner of the “painted photo montage,” but I can discuss some rudimentary steps I’ve taken in producing a sample piece.

 

I saw some potential in my photo of a Yellow Headed Blackbird taken in southwest Colorado. Right away I was interested in the play of the horizontal waves and bullrush in contrast to the vertical bullrush. The some aspects are interesting, but in my opinion the image is not strong enough to stand alone — in other words it needs some work. I’d like to introduce a lot more color to the image and to suggest some impressionistic feel to the background.

 

The original photo. Given the high contrast between the water and the botany, and using the “magic wand” with a bit of patience, I was able to select the gray, delete it, and then crop the picture.

 

“Original

 

Bird and bullrush with background entirely eliminated and new detail added to the bird using a Wacom drawing tablet.

 

R. Christopher Vest

 

A colorful water sample with upper part masked out.

 

R. Christopher Vest

 

A typical place to begin a photo enhancement is to add layers of texture and to begin to experiment with the opacities and the layer effects. This is an exercise of creative trial and error: toggling layers on and off, switching from multiply to overlay, saturating some, desaturating others, and so on. I personally love the look of an aged and heavily gessoed board and thus one of my favorite textural effects to employ is of the type below:

 

A textural old canvas sample becomes the new background.

 

R. Christopher Vest

 

To lighten the canvas I overlaid this photo of water-stained plywood with it’s color shifted to a pale yellow, the layer effect set to “screen” and the opacity adjusted to 47%.

 

R. Christopher Vest

 

A slightly counter-intuitive screen I employed was this shot of my dog coming through tall grass. With the layer effect set to “color”, this image serves to add the orange and blue tones to the foggy distant water. Alas, “Jake” scarsely appears in the final version. Sorry Jake.

 

R. Christopher Vest

 

Any dabbler in textural photo-enhancement knows that a wild variety of images can be incremented into the mix, given the skillful melding of complimentary effects.

 

Together the textural layers look like this:

 

R. Christopher Vest

 

The layers work together to create the final piece:

 

R. Christopher Vest


 

Thanks, R. Christopher! Shop his full collection on Imagekind.